Weight loss kind of sucks, doesn’t it? You want it so bad, but wishes just don’t produce results. The first question to ask yourself is, “Am I actually trying?” So… are you? Now don’t go clicking your way to a different website just because your feelings got hurt. You might truly be putting in a great deal of effort, but if that effort is misguided, the only result you’ll be getting is more frustration. So now that we’ve determined that your heart is in the right place, let’s see about getting your head there, too.
“I’m going to run everyday!” is the battle cry of so many people fed up with their weight gain. They want results, they know it will take hard work, and they are ready to run back-to-back marathons if it means the difference between mustard-stained sweatpants and those sweet skinny jeans. Perhaps out of concern for their knees, these intrepid exercisers head to the elliptical, cranking away on that thing for hours upon hours. Week in and week out, they wade home in a pool of their own sweat, hopeful that today will be the day that the scale finally vindicates all their toil.
Alas, we’ve gained two pounds!
What is the meaning of this? How can this be? All of those calories burned, all of that muscle soreness, all of that breathlessness, all of those horrible dance pop playlists to keep the motivation going… how did it all fail so miserably?
There are many ways in which you can perform cardiovascular exercises, but if the preceding paragraphs describe your hard work and mediocre gains, chances are that you are doing two things wrong: depending on long, steady bouts of cardio and not at a level that challenges your body.
The human body is an amazing machine. It strives for efficiency. Have you ever heard the mantra, “work smarter, not harder”? That is written on the break room wall of every office throughout the human body. Your system wants to accomplish the most by doing the least. Muscle growth, heart health, and fat loss as a result of exercise occur because your body is forced to make such changes in order to overcome the stress you place on it. If you are not constantly striving to break through the ceilings that you set for yourself, you’ll still be burning calories, but your body won’t need to change because you haven’t given it a reason to.
Long duration endurance activity (think elliptical and stair machines) is good at burning calories, this is true, but it is also good at making you efficient at low to moderate intensities (emphasis on low). You know what you’re body doesn’t need if your most intense activities are easy enough for you to still carry on a conversation? A strong heart & lungs and big (“toned”) muscles. In fact, these muscles get smaller to accommodate the small load they have to carry. The important part to take away from this is that your metabolism is directly connected to lean mass. Simply put: the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn all the time. If you don’t have a lot of muscle mass, you become dependent on the cardio you do to burn those calories. There’s more to it than that, but keep the following in mind: in addition to the long, steady cardiovascular training you are doing, through in some intervals and weight lifting!
Not eating enough
Somewhere out there, you stumbled upon the idea that you should eat 1200 or less calories a day (probably from Pinterest). So you count calories with the strict discipline of a concentration camp and add in the hours of cardio. Common sense be damned, you have a beach body to unveil!
Enter your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is a measure of the lowest amount of calories your body burns just to stay alive. Figure in your activity level and voila, you have a fairly decent estimate of your caloric needs, known as your Total Energy Expenditure (TEE. There are a few formulas out there to figure it out, but the simplest goes as follows:
Body Weight x 24 hours x Activity Level x 90%
Your weight has to be in kilograms, so divide that by 2.2 (ladies, multiply your weight by 0.9 before dividing by 2.2). That is an estimate of the calories you burn every hour, hence multiplying that number by 24. You then multiply that number by any number between 1.2 and 2.0 to account for your activity level (Bed Rest = 1.2; Sedentary = 1.4; Light = 1.6; Moderate = 1.8; Heavy = 2.0). Simply eating food burns around 10% of your caloric intake, so multiply your final number by 0.9 to get your TEE.
A 150-pound woman who is lightly active needs 2,120 calories to maintain that weight. To maintain a weight of 120 pounds, that woman still needs nearly 1700 calories. Imagine the drastic toll a 1200-calorie diet is going to have on her. Add in exercise, and her body is going to keep a death grip on whatever fat it can because this is red alert territory and everything is kicking into survival mode!
Bottom line: don’t starve yourself!
Eating too infrequently
You’ve probably heard advice to eat 5 – 6 times a day. There is starting to be evidence that this may not be accurate depending on your goals and activity level, but it’s still a good idea to eat every two to three hours, having small snacks between meals. Remember above how it was mentioned that you burn ten percent of your calories just by eating? Fuel that fire and eat! Don’t starve yourself. Your body needs fuel, and withholding that from yourself is just asking for more problems!
Lack of intensity
To just really drive the point home that you need to challenge your body, here’s a reminder to keep the intensity up. No, this does not mean sprint until you vomit or try to flip trucks at every opportunity. It does mean that you should not take it easy on yourself. Employ your ten-rep max when you lift weights for ten repetitions; find that threshold between “I can do this all day” and “when is my next break?” when spinning your wheels on the stationary bike; challenge yourself at every opportunity and your body will respond. Remember, all of your effort and hopes and dreams and sweat will mean nothing if you don’t keep one statement in the back of your mind:
Your body will not change unless you give it a reason to.